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THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) – LONDON FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW 2017

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) – LFF REVIEW 2017

“There’s no question that a great script is absolutely essential, maybe the essential thing for a movie to succeed.”Sydney Pollack

Directors are often held up by critics and audience alike as the God’s of film; controlling and pointing and designing and envisioning and corralling their mass creative power to thrust upon the cinema screen. Of course, with many directors or auteurs, the lofty praise is deserved but hey, did they create that vision or story or character arc in a vacuum? No, they had blueprint on a page first. They had a screenplay written by themselves or a determined writer or writing team sitting in a windowless office smoking a thousand cigarettes while slaving to get words on a page in some semblance of a coherent filmic fashion. It seems obvious to say but a great screenplay is the (skeleton) key for any great film; it’s the bones with which to hang the meat and muscle and later the clothes of any movie.  Without powerful bones a film will not stand strong. It will fall.

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Screenwriter (and director) Martin McDonagh has, in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri constructed one of, if not the most, formidable screenplays of the year.  As a playwright he won many awards for his works and his film, In Bruges (2008), was a deceptively simple story of two hitmen on the run which, with rich thematic power, became a darkly hilarious existential comedy-drama. His follow-up Seven Psychopaths (2012) was a heady mix of criminals versus writers in a meta-fictional Hollywood-based narrative; which while brilliantly written and performed arguably lacked the punch of In Bruges. Now, with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh has delivered his best film to date; a highly emotional human drama which contains some of incredible characterization, dialogue and zinging one-liners which bounce off the page and crackle on the screen.

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Eschewing a more traditional structure the script’s inciting event – the murder of a young girl called Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton) – has already occurred and therefore we are thrust immediately into the grief of main protagonist Mildred Hayes, portrayed with an iron veneer by the remarkable Frances McDormand. Her study of a grieving Mother, who is no longer prepared to sit by and wait for her daughter’s killers to be found, is awe-inspiring. Firing a rocket into the patriarchal-dominated police department ran by Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) she sets in motion a series of unforgettably tragic, violent and blackly comedic scenes.  In using the three billboards to question Willoughby’s investigation she utilises physical media as a larger form of the ‘Scarlet Letter’; an old fashioned “name and shame” device. Because Mildred, is refreshingly traditional and old-fashioned and in rural, small-town America the Internet just won’t hack it for her. She is about direct, in-your-face and ballsy action.

As a study of grief this is similar in feel to the majestic Manchester-by-the-Sea (2016) and no doubt, like Kenneth Lonergan, McDonagh will be picking up many awards for his nuanced screenplay. He imbues each of the characters with a flawed, yet rounded humanity. He takes risks by making his main protagonist, despite her loss, kind of unlikeable. Yet we are always with Mildred because she is righteous and swimming against the tide of authority and masculine dominance. Plus, she surprises us with her actions and language and violence. Below the tough exterior though there is also a vulnerability which makes us love her too and empathise fully with her loss.

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McDonagh and his filmmaking team have also put together a phenomenal ensemble cast including: Woody Harrelson, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, and Abbie Cornish etc. Sam Rockwell is especially memorable as the immature, inept and thuggish mother’s boy, Jason Dixon. His scenes with both Frances McDormand and his on-screen Mother, played with deadpan gusto by Sandy Martin, crack with complex emotion and humour. Collectively they portray imperfect characters whose lives have not just been dealt a bum hand but their situation is exacerbated by poor decisions based on emotion and frustration with life and the world. Ultimately, this is an excellent cinematic experience funny, shocking and moving; only possible because of the expert script from a great writer.

(Mark: 10 out of 11 – and the script goes up to 11!)

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MOVIE REVIEW: KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

MOVIE REVIEW: KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

**THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD**

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Of late I have watched a plethora of heavyweight Oscar-driven dramas such as: Arrival (2016), Manchester by the Sea (2016), Fences (2016), Hacksaw Ridge (2016) and Moonlight (2016) and the cinema-going experience was in danger of becoming far too thought-provoking a place to be. I mean I like using my brain but I was seriously getting over-worked here. Even feel-good films such as La La Land (2016) were pretty complex in their whip-bang delivery, while the bio-pic Hidden Figures (2016) dealt with issues of racial segregation and empowerment during the space race. Thankfully, my brain can take a rest from such challenging dramas as first John Wick 2 (2016) and Kong: Skull Island (2017) have come to save the day with some good old-fashioned-fast-paced-B-movie-bloody-genre-action.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND

Kong director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and platoon of screenwriters have constructed a thrilling monster movie which is low on plot but high on pyrotechnics in a cinema blast which they should have called APOCALYPSE KONG!!  The story, if you can call it that, involves John Goodman’s murky conspiracy theorist embarking on a “surveying” mission of an island which rarely shows up on radar. Plus, it looks like a skull on a map AND pretty much every boat or plane which goes near it vanishes. So, enter at your peril!

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Personally, I probably would not choose this as a holiday destination yet Goodman manages to gather an army consisting of United States marines who’ve just that day finished fighting in Vietnam. These battle-weary veterans led by Samuel L. Jackson, Shea Wigham and Toby Kebbell should probably go home but Jackson’s Lieutenant-Colonel Packard has some old testament vengeance business he needs to re-enact. Meanwhile, anti-war photographer Brie Larson and SAS mercenary Tom Hiddleston also join the crew too along with a generic bunch of scientists and military grunts all destined to be Kong fodder!

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Now, I wasn’t a massive fan of the most recent Godzilla (2014) film –  my review here testifies – as it did not have enough of the monsters or action and was WAY too serious. Skull Island is a totally different beast altogether. You get monsters galore from the get-go and of course Kong is the King, as he finds his eco-system invaded by humans and their big weapons so he fights back with hairy, muscular abandon. The humanity and humour of the film is provided mainly by John C. Reilly’s WW2 soldier who has gone bamboo with the natives and his story arguably has the most emotion. But the real stars are the tree-monsters, subterranean creatures, Pterodactyls, giant Squids and Spiders, which along with Kong, leap out of the screen at regular intervals dining on humans for breakfast, lunch and supper.

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Overall, the film wears its’ Jurassic-Park-Hell-In-the-Pacific-Lost-World-Predator-Apocalypse-Now-Godzilla influences on its gigantic jungle sleeves. So it’s safe to say I had a lot of fun taking my brain out and watching the fireworks and monsters in this B-movie behemoth. The story is uneven and characters paper-thin but the gorgeous imagery, fun action set-pieces and a very attractive cast including Hiddleston, Larson and Corey Hawkins, plus the off-kilter mania of John C. Reilly make it worth the admission alone. (Mark 8 out of 11 – for the monsters and mayhem mainly.)